If you look at any list of must-have qualities for great leaders, you will almost always find courage included. Courage has been referred to as a defining characteristic of great leaders, the most important leadership virtue, and essential for leadership.
Courage is a choice to face a risk for a worthy purpose.
But, the virtue isn’t reserved for chiefs at the top with skin in the game. In fact, it is critical for organizations to develop the components of courage in its young leaders — the ones who will carry companies into the future.
Here are three reasons why every organization should prioritize the development of courage in young leaders.
To learn from unique perspectives
One of the hardest actions for a young leader to take is to speak up in a meeting full of people who seem to have more influence, experience and testosterone than them. In fact, one young woman found me after I had given a keynote presentation in N.C. to ask how to summon courage to share her ideas and perspectives in male-dominated workspaces. Her question had an undertone of exhaustion — predictably from repeatedly holding back her concerns and solutions out of fear of rejection or judgment. She looked like someone who had been playing a game of tug-of-war and was losing.
Her inability to speak up was causing her to lose opportunities to grow, strengthen her skills and be productive. But, she wasn’t the only one coming up short. Her organization was missing out on her individual perspective formed from her unique knowledge and experiences. And, the cost of her keeping quiet, as well as other young leaders like her, is lost opportunities to the organization for process improvement, thorough evaluation of a problem, caution around a bad idea, productivity and more. An organization’s effort to develop courage in leaders early in their career simultaneously helps to unlock the leader’s voice and value and helps to unlock the organization’s potential. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic, has highlighted the urgency companies need to place on spending their learning budgets and developing their young leaders in order to pivot and grow.
To better position the organization to evolve and innovate
Young leaders eventually become seasoned leaders who manage and influence the organization’s next class of new talent. And, like parents or professors, they will teach what they know. Leaders who have not made a habit out of acting courageously — taking worthwhile risks — are unlikely to model courageous behavior for the teams of young people reporting to them.
This was the case with a manager and coordinator team I met at a conference in Chicago. The coordinator presented her manager with a detailed plan of how their youth-development organization could attract and serve a more diverse population. The manager (politely) rejected the idea largely from a disinterest in upsetting or losing current members. In doing so, the manager emphasized a message of safety, comfort and convention, which the coordinator at some level will adjust to. And, a series of those kind of adjustments will impact the type of manager that coordinator becomes.
Many organizations aspire to have courageous cultures and even use the word “courage” in company memos and value statements. But, the proof of a courageous culture doesn’t come from it being talked about at the top. The evidence is in the activation of courage in the middle and at the bottom. So, it is important for an organization to invest early in building its newest employees’ ability to evaluate risks, developing their competence and confidence, and reinforcing the importance of operating by personal (and company) values. When developing the components of courage isn’t prioritized in young leaders, organizations minimize their power to evolve and innovate by cycling through leaders who learn to play it safe.
To retain young leaders
It should be safe to assume that everyone wants to work in an environment where their true, authentic selves are valued and respected. Young leaders who are members of the millennial and Gen Z generations are known to be more diverse, more tolerant, less prejudicial, and more individualistic. But, every workplace isn’t equipped to understand, accept or leverage these traits. The social upheaval of 2020 has forced companies in all sectors to evaluate their policies and track records on racial diversity and tolerance, and many are finding that they have a lot of work to do.
While organizations are doing the long-term work of making their virtual hallways and conference rooms safe and equitable for minorities, it is also important that they do, what may be considered, the shorter-term work of building up courage in their young leaders. Because building up their courage strengthens their personal agency to challenge authority and represent themselves honestly. And, the combination of the two approaches can help to retain young leaders, boost their job satisfaction, and increase their productivity.
So, please consider this. If you are at the top of your company’s org chart, what is your organization doing to develop courage in its young leaders? If you are a young leader, what is your organization doing to help you activate your courage?